James Morel is a born-and-raised in Oklahoma, do-it-yourself waterfowler who especially loves sandhill crane hunting. He’s also Wetlands and Migratory Bird Coordinator for Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, overseeing waterfowl habitat management, mid-winter waterfowl counts and various other waterfowl management responsibilities throughout Oklahoma. What’s the big deal about sandhill cranes, how are they hunted? Which sandhill crane subspecies are hunted in Oklahoma and what are the differences? Why is Oklahoma a popular destination for both waterfowl and waterfowl hunters, what are the primary species hunted, and what public land hunting opportunities exist? Why is Morel confident that North America waterfowl populations are in good shape, and what biological observations make him think that hunter perceptions might likely be an optical illusion?
The Sandhill Crane Hunter
What is it about cranes that you’re so enamored with?
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host Ramsey Russell join me here to listen to those conversations. Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere. I’m in Oklahoma on the river bank, on the tailgate talking to today’s guest Mr. James Morel, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, Wetlands and Migratory Bird Coordinator for the state of Oklahoma. How are you James?
James Morel: Good. Doing good, thanks for having me.
Ramsey Russell: Man, I appreciate y’all having me. You got a whole truck full of — listen to that wind blowing man, it finally kicks up, we get off the creek bank from duck hunting. Folks, I’m still wearing waders. That’s how I exam to get this guy on a on a podcast and do a little conversation. James, you got a whole truck bed full of Sandhill cranes. Are you a crane hunter?
James Morel: Oh man, you know it. I haven’t done a whole lot of crane hunting here in Oklahoma since I got back up here, I’ve been starting a lot more of goose hunting and a little bit of duck hunting here and there. But I was a pretty hardcore crane chaser there in Texas for about five years there where I was doing my PhD.
Ramsey Russell: Where are you originally from here in Oklahoma?
James Morel: Originally from a little town in western Oklahoma called Cordell.
Ramsey Russell: But you didn’t hunt cranes growing up?
James Morel: No, no, I didn’t hunt cranes growing up, you know it wasn’t something that many people really did back then. Really, crane hunting is still a pretty infant experience. I mean 1975-1985 somewhere in between there is when hunters started realizing that we can decoy cranes, I mean hunting seasons for crane has been open for you know 50 years. But most people were pass shooting back then and in the early 80s people started realizing you can get out and decoy these things.
Ramsey Russell: Relative to the United States there’s so few places you can really hunt them. And Oklahoma and Texas, Panhandle Texas in general is a — I’d say that pretty much describes most of the places people hunt cranes in the US, what do you say?
James Morel: Yeah, for sure. I mean early on North Dakota was shooting the majority of the cranes outside of Canada. And again back then in those early days they were doing a lot of pass shooting. But we winter the majority of the mid-continent population cranes in Oklahoma and Texas and primarily Texas.
Ramsey Russell: Where are those birds breeding and coming from?
James Morel: So they’re coming from Central Canada all the way up to the Arctic, all the way over west, up in Alaska, and even up into Russia. So all those are mid-continent birds, Lessers and Greaters that are coming down the Central Flyway.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve seen them in the summer time up in Montana. You say it’s just out in the strangest places.
James Morel: Sure, sure.
Ramsey Russell: Would this be the same birds coming through here or that are different species?
James Morel: So the mid-continent population does transfer into some of the other populations a little bit. So those could be the Rocky Mountain population or mid-continent population.
Ramsey Russell: Are you shooting Greaters or Lessers?
James Morel: We’re shooting both here. So we can talk about the other sub populations, but the mid-continent population is really the only population where we have both Lessers and Greaters. All the other populations are all Greaters.
Ramsey Russell: Obviously the Greaters is a bigger bird, but I’ve shot in the times past Texas, Oklahoma. I’ve shot big middles and little juveniles, adults. How can I pick up that bird and tell the difference?
James Morel: Sure. So a lot of times it’s night and day difference. You know, you’re looking at an 8 lbs bird versus a 15 lbs bird.
Ramsey Russell: Oh really that much difference?
James Morel: Yeah, I can show you some pictures. It’s night and day there’s no question about it. But there is sort of that central, that that mid-range bird in the past we thought it actually might be a subspecies, the Canadian Sandhill crane. And genetic analysis has kind of showed us now that we don’t think there are subspecies, just variability in both the sizes of the Greaters and the size of the Lessers.
Ramsey Russell: Hunting swans. There’s a measurement on the bill between the back of the nail and the tip of the bill. Anything 62 millimeters and greater is a trumpeter. Is there any diagnostic like that. If I could break out my caliber and tell?
James Morel: Yeah, absolutely there is.
Ramsey Russell: The bird knows. Like I might want to know the difference.
James Morel: Sure. Yeah, we do that all the time when we were shooting cranes. So a guy named Jane Vaughn Bake, he works for USGS Northern Prairie Research Center. A few years back, I don’t know four or five years back, they took a sample of genetically identified cranes of both the Greaters and the Lessers. And they identified some more for metric measurements that you can plug into a probability model, a predictive model that will spit you out a probability of what it might be. And that’s the Coleman length, which is what you were talking about. That’s basically the bill length, wing chord length. And I believe it’s the tarsus length. So you can plug those three measurements into this probability model. It’s basically just a multiplier. And it’ll spit out a probability and 90% of the time its right whether it is a Lesser or a Greater.
Ramsey Russell: What is it about cranes that you’re so enamored with? You don’t have a duck decoy back in your truck. I know you duck hunt, I know you goose hunt but your truck bed is totally loaded with lawn art looking crane decoys.
James Morel: Yeah, I’m certainly a crane addict. You know, a lot of people call you a specialist, these days when you’re just hunting single species. So I certainly fall in that category as a crane specialist. It’s the beauty of them that really that gets me out there so often. It’s just the beauty of the huge wingspan, these big B-52 just coming in and you know they come in from sometimes 300 – 400 yards away and there on the deck, they’re already 20ft off the deck and they’re just coming in, it takes them 10 minutes to get there. So you get to watch that show forever. And it’s great, they decoy really easy. They’re really not a hard bird to hunt if you can find where they want to be. And I’ll be honest, a lot of it too was when I got down to Texas about 6-7 years ago, I was really gung ho about chasing cackling geese. I never really hunted cacklers a whole lot and I spent a year or two chasing those suckers around and they are so hard to field hunt that I got to where I was just like — I’m in crane country, let’s just try some crane hunting and it just became an addiction.
Ramsey Russell: What about as table fare?
James Morel: Oh, I mean everybody, they call them the ribeye of the sky of course but they’re amazing. I mean it’s as good as any beef steak you’ll get, if you ask me.
Ramsey Russell: Little lane for a ribeye, more like a sirloin, but it is to me a delicious game bird. Probably one of the best. Maybe my favorite.
James Morel: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: It’s funny you should talk about them coming in slow motion because they do. I was hunting down in New Mexico with some boys last year which is where crane hunting in the U.S. started, was New Mexico of all places. We were down around Roswell and the birds finally started showing up and coming in in waves, and I mean just all the way over that red dirt they were locked up, coming, and coming, and coming, and coming. First thought that we were half done so we decided we’re going to take turns and for a couple of plays I put it on slow motion and that was — It’s already slow motion when they’re coming in it’s already slow motion. So don’t put it on slow motion video with your iPhone when you when you got these birds coming in. I don’t know. And you know to me what I tell people that have never hunted cranes and should — When it’s really good the most discouraging thing or the biggest disappointment about crane hunting is that it can be over in a volley.
James Morel: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: It’s like shooting flat screen TVs right on the deck.
James Morel: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Have you seen that too?
James Morel: Yeah. I mean ideally if you really want to go chase cranes, you need to get in an area that’s got 30,000 – 40,000 cranes so that you’re not just shooting that one volley because a lot of times they will come off that roost, you know, and they’ll know where they want to go that morning and they’ll all come in at one time and that’s kind of what you’re talking about. So you get one shot and you know, you’ve got 5000 birds that are kind of on their way coming in and you basically got one shot. So it’s really good to find a place that there’s a pretty high density of birds that you have some options where you can go high densities of birds. I mean they’re going to be spread out a little bit more, you’re going to have a little bit more shooting, and you’re going to have a few more volleys, that sort of thing.
Best States for Crane Hunting
Ramsey Russell: Are Oklahoma and Texas to go to places just because that’s where they’ve always been or is there something unique about the habitat here?
James Morel: It’s both. It’s historically where they sort of winter the Plie Lakes region. And all the salt lakes that are around the Plie Lakes region, just up off the cap rock. They love to roost on those salt lakes, it’s a lot of the reason why sometimes we’ll lose birds here in Oklahoma when we get those big freeze events and all the plie lakes will freeze up. We’ve really only got one big salt lake and that’s the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge. And so you’ll hold birds around that area. But all the other areas where there’s cranes, it freezes up, they typically go to Texas or back up to Kansas around the salt lake. So it’s a function of the habitat. There’s a lot, there used to be a whole lot more, but there’s a lot of corn and milo in the area. They will get out in those cotton fields and eat some of that waste grains and that waste seed. But cotton is king and it’s kind of overtaken a lot of that area. But that is historically one of the reasons why they’ve been there was just the agriculture. But yeah, Texas and Oklahoma winter, the majority of the mid-continent population, we’ve got about almost three quarter of a million birds was what we counted last year in the spring count upon the north plateau. And so we’ve got a lot of birds and we’re shooting, you know, harvest rates that are right at about 10% of that, we’re shooting about 7400 birds or so.
Ramsey Russell: 7400 birds a year in Oklahoma?
James Morel: Yeah in Oklahoma and Texas. In Central Flyway.
Ramsey Russell: Wow.
James Morel: Yeah, something like that. I’d have to go back and look at those numbers. But we’re shooting right at about 10% and that was really just last year. The years before that was much, much, much lower. We’ve had an explosion in crane hunting participation. Texas doubled their participation last year. They usually have somewhere around 10,000. It’s been increasing over the last decade or so. But I think 2019 or so they had about 10,000 hunters, 2020, they had 20,000 hunters.
Ramsey Russell: You think that market increase had something to do with the pandemic, people just wanted to get out?
James Morel: We think it certainly had some level that it will be interesting to see what happens this year. But harvest is obviously increasing. We’re seeing increased participation. I think social media is having a lot of influence on that. You’ve seen a lot of crane pictures out there. A lot of media attention, people wanting to get out and shoot cranes and they’re plentiful and you can get out there and get on them. And so it’s a good resource for hunters and they’re realizing that.
Ramsey Russell: They’re not a duck or a goose or a waterfowl. They’re not waterfowl. But they are on a lot of these lists, a lot of these 41 lists, I mean, for some reason they include Sandhill cranes, and then I can get it because you hunt them similarly. I mean its right up a duck hunter’s alley. Put out the decoys. One thing I’ve noticed about Sandhill cranes though, James, is unlike a duck or a goose that can be a little forgiven on concealment cranes, you’ve got to be hidden.
James Morel: Absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: The blind itself may be conspicuous, but if they see humanity, they’re not coming anywhere near. Have you seen that?
James Morel: Oh, absolutely, man. I mean you can see, you know, get on YouTube or social media, you’ll see those big A frames and will be holding 15 guys in and they’ll be in the middle of a dirt field that might have just been seated. And I mean you think, man, you can’t shoot a bird out there, you’re just sticking out like a sore thumb, but as long as you don’t move that’s what the cranes are keying in on. And I’ve got a funny story that one year I had five or six guys that were out hunting with me. And we were just chock full of cranes that year. And we were having them come in and they were just flaring at 80 yards all morning long and we just couldn’t figure out what was going on. So of course I get back out and I step away about 50 yards from all the blinds, and I see just a little white tag off of somebody’s layout blind that’s It’s kind of waggling in the wind, you know just kind of whipping in the wind a little bit, and I just ripped that tag off and we shot our limits in 30 minutes. I mean it was just that little tiny one inch long tag that was whipping around on the end of somebody and that was that’s all it took for them.
Sandhill Crane Hunting Tips & Secrets
Ramsey Russell: That’s all it took. Have you got a favorite way to cook them?
James Morel: I do a lot of pastrami. I’ll do a three day brine and smoke it.
Ramsey Russell: Chris Berkeley gave me a pastrami recipe and swears you can cook a skunk using her pastrami recipe.
James Morel: I mean I do that with geese a lot too, and even mallard sometimes, but any time I make a bunch of pastrami and I have a little party or get together, something, that stuff goes in minutes. I mean it’s really, really good stuff.
Ramsey Russell: Talk about hunting them just a little bit, how you got into it and how exactly you set up? Because I know it’s very similar to ducks.
James Morel: Well I got into it when I went to back in, I guess it was 2014. 2014 when I started my PhD, I got hooked up with a bunch of guys that have been hunting them. I’ve never hunted them before, knew about it, but never hunted them. And they invited me one day and that was kind of all she wrote, I became an addict after that and they taught me how to set up crane decoys and what kind of decoys to use. And we’ve used all kinds of decoys. You know, we’ve used these full bodies and the deceptions and the silhouettes and socks, we’ve used them all and they all work, and it just kind of depends on how pressured those birds are getting. Obviously wind sock looks really good when it’s really windy. Not so good when it’s not windy. So you kind of decide what you want to use. Several of us got together and we stuffed our own and we had about 90 stuffers that we would use. And that was always the ticket, you always knew, I mean that was always going to be the best. So having some feathers on decoy. I know some guys that’ll take old heron decoys, you know that you were talking about yard art, those old heron decoys and then they’ll screw on the wings of Sandhill cranes just to have some feathers on them and they kill a bunch of them.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
James Morel: Oh yeah, it works really well. But yeah as far as setting up goes, what I found over time is because they have such a big wingspan. Wind is not as big a factor as it is with ducks and geese. You know they obviously always want to land into the wind, right? And so do cranes if given the opportunity but they really want to be in an area, you’ll see them land with the wind. And another thing that you’ll find too is I like too, I like to set up where I’m shooting across shot, not when they’re coming straight in at because they have such good eyesight and they’re looking at you the entire time they’re coming in. So I like to have them coming in parallel to me with the cross shot. And what you’ll find too is with ducks and geese they tend to kind of land in the back of the pack or if you have a hole there, or a J hook or whatever is they’ll kind of land in that area.
Ramsey Russell: In the pocket.
James Morel: In the pocket. With cranes what they like to tend to do is fly just over the group of cranes and land in front of them or land in them. Now, they’ll land behind them and they’ll land all over the place, but you’ll see them float right over your decoys and land in front of them.
Ramsey Russell: Get ahead of that feedline.
James Morel: Yeah, they’ll will be the first one on the feedline.
Ramsey Russell: Cutting in front of the line to eat.
James Morel: Yeah. I’ve always wondered because you think about, you know, such a big bird, if they decide that they want to fly off, I mean you’d be right in the way of them, you know, if they’re flying over and so I’ve always kind of wondered why they do that, but that could be the reason.
Ramsey Russell: What size shot do you shoot?
James Morel: Anything man?
Ramsey Russell: You don’t have to use steel for cranes.
James Morel: You don’t have to use steel for cranes and I’ve used lead before. I typically just use steel, pretty much everything I hunt anymore these days. Lead is extremely effective, no doubt about it. A lead turkey load is about the most effective load there is, of course those are pretty expensive loads. But yeah, I’m usually using twos and threes, but when we’ve got them in our faces. I mean you can use sixes and I typically don’t like to use a lot of small shot just because there’s so much of it out there and you’ll ruin a lot of meat doing that. But yeah, twos and threes is typically what I use.
Ramsey Russell: You were telling me last night at dinner that you’ve been extremely busy at work and you’ve only gone out once or twice. What’s got you so busy?
James Morel: Well, we’ve got a lot going on, man. So my charge as the as the wetland coordinator is to coordinate wetland activities across the state. You know, we’ve got 35 development units. And within those units we have 137 separate sort of units, moist cell, green tree reservoirs that sort of thing. Natural riparian wetlands. And those areas always need attention. We’ve got lots of screw gates and lots of control structures and tin horns and you name it, and those things rust out and we need to replace them and we’ve got the pumps that go down and all kinds of things. And so I’m doing a lot of coordinating with all of our WDU, Wetland Development Unit biologists and area biologists trying to figure out what they need, where we can place our efforts the best, how we manage these things, and it’s getting a lot more difficult over the last couple of years given the variability in climate and water availability, when we’re getting water, when we’re not getting water. And so we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how we’re going to get a good duck habitat on the ground.
Ramsey Russell: With all that public land, how much public land hunting opportunity is there in Oklahoma?
James Morel: A lot. So we are a private land state. We have a great deal of public land and one of the greatest things that we have, I can’t tell you how long ago we started this, but we have what’s called the Oklahoma Landowner Access Program (OLAP). And these OLAP properties are private landowners that allow the public to go out and hunt on their properties and so they can enroll in these, it’s kind of like an easement program in a way. They can enroll in there and they offer these properties — and I’ll tell you what the hunting I’ve done this year has been absolutely fantastic on those properties, a lot of its upland stuff and I do a fair bit of upland hunting so yeah, we’ve got a lot of a lot of those properties all across Oklahoma.
Ramsey Russell: Speaking of upland, I’m of the opinion that especially when we start talking wild Bobwhite quail in Oklahoma and Texas – when you’ve got good growing season precipitation – are two of the top old school wild quail hunting. I mean, you look at the soil profiles, there’s a lot of bare dirt and they don’t quail on real strong scratchers like a feather or something. I mean they walk around it on top. I mean that is a bit, I’m right about that. There’s a lot of Bobwhite quail opportunity out here.
James Morel: There is. Obviously bobwhite in Oklahoma and Texas for the last — oh, I don’t even know, I’m not a quail biologist, but the last 3-5 years or more have been pretty limited. Again, changing climate, changing habitat, a lot of development. There’s a lot of things going on. We’ve got eye worms, we’ve got a bunch of different things that are contributing to declining quail abundance. We’ve got a little more quail this year than we had last year, but it’s still not the 15 coveys a day that you used to be able to get into, but you can get into three or four or five coveys a day this year. But yeah, you’re right it’s a huge quail destination, Oklahoma.
Ramsey Russell: There was a time back in granddad’s era, Bobwhite quail was pretty popular from here throughout the Deep South and I have come out here and done some Bobwhite quail hunting many years ago. And the quail hunting was good and wet years of hunting, quail hunting was unbelievable, but it was real quail hunting wasn’t riding around in a wagon, it was getting out walking. And this is way back in history, Get Ducks, sorry for the aside, but we started booking a hunt up in northern Oklahoma and we learned something really, really quickly. Is that the true old school quail hunter was a dinosaur. He was a much older gentleman that grew up with his dad and granddad back in the heyday and his health wasn’t such that he could get out walk 12 – 13 miles anymore, and the young guy that thought they wanted to quail hunt had been hunting over putting tape type operations and they realized real quick that going out chasing wild birds with a whole different critter, they weren’t really into that.
James Morel: Right.
Ramsey Russell: And you know, it’s almost like a true wild bird quail hunting has gone the way of the dinosaur to a large extent.
James Morel: Yeah, I mean it’s certainly declined in the abundance of those folks that are out there, you know Texas still has a lot of those guys and we have a lot of those guys in Oklahoma still. But you when you’re working, you put a lot of effort. These quail guys, these hardcore quail hunters. These guys have 5-6-10 dogs they basically have their own kennels and put a lot of money, they got their own quail trucks and trailers and put a lot of money and effort into going out and chasing quail and when you’ve got an opportunity to go and get one or two coveys, it hardly makes much as much sense.
Ramsey Russell: My brother-in-law has got a couple of English pointers and he will walk from here to Mississippi looking for that next point. But he’s cut from that fashion. He’s a rarity, you know what I’m saying? And I guess what made me think about Bobwhite quail was last night we went to that old hotel, that was an old hotel and the two prints hanging in the office were people walking in on, you know, dogs on point, coveys quail getting up, and you just don’t see that everywhere anymore.
James Morel: No, no, you don’t. And hopefully environmental conditions, we’ll be in our favor in the near future in the next few years and we’ll see those days again where we’re out there chasing quail, and we’re getting 15 covey days and that sort of thing, but you know, here we’re here on Canton Lake right now hunting ducks, but this is a pretty good destination for quail. It’s not huge abundance, but I was talking with biologists just the other day and he said he’s seen more quail out here than he’s seen a lot of years.
Ramsey Russell: When I see sand plum and sumac, I think Bobwhite quail.
James Morel: Me too.
Ramsey Russell: I really do and I’m seeing a lot of it out here. Going back to what you were saying about managing wetland habitat in Oklahoma, what are you trying to produce? What more soil or emergent marsh, what are you trying to produce? What plant communities or habitat environment are you trying to produce for waterfowl in the state of Oklahoma?
James Morel: So it’s pretty similar to any wintering state. I mean we’re really trying to produce emergent vegetation, seed abundance. So the leading theory and paradigm for wintering waterfowl management is to provide as much forage as possible. So they get down here and you’ve got to think about what their limiting factors for survival are right outside of just the gun. And seed abundance and food is what we are really managing for. So emergent vegetation, some submerged vegetation, we’ve got some green tree reservoirs that we’re managing for over cuts, and pin oaks, and that sort of thing for good mass production. I mean it varies. Every wetland is different and our biologists are really great and they’ll tell you, one wetland cell – even in the same area and a hundred yards away – one wetland cell can be completely different than the other in the way those plant communities respond. And so we do a lot of different things. We do some disking, we do some fallow, we do some flooding, and we do some burn. I mean we do a lot of different things to kind of experiment with how do we produce the most seeds as possible for these wetland habitats. And really the underlying goal for what we’re doing is let’s set the stage, let’s give them as the best possible opportunity to have forage habitat. And so we’re really just trying to set the stage and give them what we possibly can give them. So that’s the underlying goal.
Wildlife Sanctuaries in Oklahoma
You know we’ve talked about this quite a bit over the last couple of days but sanctuaries are going to become more and more important with the increased hunting pressure that we’re seeing here in Oklahoma.
Ramsey Russell: How important is sanctuary in the state of Oklahoma?
James Morel: They’re important, they’re real important. You know a lot of our WDUs do have a little refuge units in them that aren’t able to be hunted. You know we’ve talked about this quite a bit over the last couple of days but sanctuaries are going to become more and more important with the increased hunting pressure that we’re seeing here in Oklahoma. I mean we’re a destination state now. You know, we’ve got folks coming from Canada, and North Dakota, and a lot of different places all over, all over.
Ramsey Russell: Throughout the United States.
James Morel: Yeah, throughout the United States are coming to Oklahoma.
Ramsey Russell: It is one of the hot beds.
James Morel: It is. And we’ve always been a mallard state, we shoot a lot of mallards from Oklahoma and people have realized that. So they’re coming, and they get out here, and of course they don’t have a lot of time to go out and scout, and knock on doors, and so they go to our public lands. And we still have some really, really good hunts that can be had on public lands. But there’s also some pressure related to that stuff. I mean, I’ll give you a good example, Huckleberry Flats in southwest Oklahoma is one of our big destinations. Beautiful, beautiful wetland complex, historic basin. You get out there and you’ll shoot ducks, no doubt about it. And I flew that survey last year, the mid-winter survey, I flew it over during duck season. I counted 500 – 600 birds out there, which is not bad. You can get some shooting in on that. About three weeks later after season closed, I went back out there just for the fun of it. There was 300,000 ducks in there.
Ramsey Russell: Wow.
James Morel: I mean that tells you they didn’t just come down, they just didn’t come down from Kansas then. And I mean we talked about it among the agency for a little bit there, where they were, what they were doing. They were probably down the Red river on the Salt Fork of the Red or the North Fork. And they were getting away from the guns.
Ramsey Russell: I know that recently you were doing your mid-winter waterfowl counts, aerial surveys. Can you see that pattern from the air and do your numbers reflect it?
James Morel: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: You see birds piled up in sanctuaries during the open season or?
James Morel: Yeah, they do, man, absolutely. And something that was really interesting this year was what we found during our mid-winter surveys. We actually had way, way more birds than I ever realized. You know we do surveys almost weekly.
Ramsey Russell: More than normal?
Where are All the Ducks?
James Morel: No, Not more than normal I’d say we’re still a little bit below average over long term average. More than I thought though given the reports that I’m getting from hunters and from my biologists and stuff. And the reason why is when I did these surveys, we’ve got 10,000 mallards in the middle of reservoir in 80ft of water. That’s not mallard habitat. And you got to start thinking about it. I was talking to my counterpart in Kansas and he was seeing the same thing. He said, man, I’ve got as many ducks as I’ve ever seen in my life down here, but they’re not available to the hunters. They’re all out in the middle of a reservoir so we don’t have any way. We don’t have any surveys in Oklahoma where we track hunter success other than the HIP Survey, the federal survey, but Kansas does. And he says that their hunting success is down by about three quarters. So they’re shooting about a quarter of the birds they normally shoot but he’s got as many birds as they ever have. And it’s because they’re all out in the middle of these reservoirs and that’s a function. I think it’s a theory. But it’s a function of it being mostly adult birds with such low production this year in the prairie pothole region. Most of these birds that we’re seeing down here are adults. They’ve been down here before. They know the game, and I think they’re staying away from the guns and being in the middle of those reservoirs.
Ramsey Russell: You bring up a good topic. We were talking about this briefly yesterday morning on the walk out. I’m not coming from a perspective of somebody that sits in the same blind in Mississippi for the entire season, and sees a dearth of ducks, and says, oh, there’s no ducks on earth. I’ve traveled, 15 states, 3 Canadian provinces this year, 22 states last year, coast to coast, wall to wall, and maybe I live in an echo chamber. But everybody I’m hunting with, and I do mean everybody I’m hunting with, if they’re my age, 40, 45, 50 and older, they’re extremely disappointed. They’re extremely disappointed. And it’s starting to sink in to me. It’s like, I talk to duck hunters all day, every day. I share a blind with hundreds of people in a year. And just my observation seems to be, and I’m so fortunate to have someone like yourself on here to help me walk through this seems to be, we don’t have any ducks. I’m just sitting here saying, where are the ducks? I’ve been everywhere? And I’ve had some great hunts and some great times, but I’ve had a lot of slow hunts like this morning, where the hell are the ducks? Are there any ducks like paper numbers?
James Morel: No, I mean we’re still trying to figure out a lot of that. So you’ve opened up a can of worms, it’s an octopus with a lot more than eight tentacles. There’s a lot of things going on. We’ve got a lot of new habitat development, a lot of habitat fragmentation. We’ve got concentrated birds. Now we’ve got a lot of hunting pressure on the landscape. And this year we had really poor production. So one of the things I keep telling my constituents is don’t forget the fact that we’ve been in a duck high for the last 20-25 years. We’ve had liberal seasons because we’ve been wet on the prairies for so long. It’s unusual to be that wet on the prairies for so long.
Ramsey Russell: I mean, there’s twenty year olds out here, their entire lifetime has been that 66 that real productive wet period.
James Morel: Yeah, you’re right. We’ve got a full generation that have never seen a restrictive limit of restrictive regulations at all. And you know what I tell folks is there’s not very many waterfowl biologists out there that are raising a big red flag right now going, oh, boy, what are we going to do? This is natural, we have natural wet and dry cycles, and we need those dry cycles in the prairie potholes. That’s really what produces a lot of the invertebrate production that we need for the hatch year birds and so we need those dry cycles. And so this is the first year that a lot of people have ever seen a dry cycle. And so this now this dip in and birds is natural. We’re going to have that. It’s surprising. We haven’t had it over the last 20 years. So we’re not raising a red flag yet another year or two of low production. Yeah, we’re going to have to start thinking about things.
Ramsey Russell: It concerns me if I think about it too hard, especially in my biological ignorance. And in light of that it concerns me that the powers that we have not done a waterfowl inventory in two years, that we’ve not banded ducks up in prairie Canada to have an estimate of harvest in two years. And here we are out here hunting on a 66. They’ve already said in the Mississippi Flyway for 66 next year. And I know there’s a reason — I learned yesterday at breakfast — there’s a reason they moved forward like that. But it really concerns me. To me, in my way of thinking, is like me going on a shopping spree, spending a credit card without ever having looked at my banking account for the past two years. Why should I not be so concerned?
James Morel: Well, I think those are all great questions and valid concerns. And we are certainly concerned that we have not been able to get up to Canada and do the work that we need to do for the last two years as well. I mean we were pushing very hard to get that data. We need that data. But I will also caution folks and say it’s not the only data input that we that we use for those models. So we have state surveys. So North Dakota always does production surveys and the breeding population surveys, and preseason banding. We’ve got harvest surveys, we’ve got HIP surveys and diaries. We’ve got wing be where we’re getting harvest rates, sex ratios, that sort of thing. So we’ve got a lot of the data that we can still input into those models right into the AHM model. The adaptive harvest management stuff that you and I’ve talked so much about over the last few days. And so we’ve got some of that data and because we have so many years we’ve got 55 years of data of banding and BPOP surveys and all that stuff. So you can run trend analysis. So it gets real complex but you can kind of think of it as you have a trend from 55 years of data if you miss a year or two. You know that trend isn’t going to be affected that much. So we can still move forward with recommendations based on good data. Now do we want to do that 3-4-5 years? Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I mean the preseason banding and the BPOP surveys that May surveys are an extremely integral and important part of all those models for sure. So we definitely want to get back up there and we’re hoping that we’re going to be able to do that this year
Ramsey Russell: It looks like it will be
James Morel: Yeah, I think so.
Ramsey Russell: And explain because I really did not understand and may have been a tad pessimistic about the fact that U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already set next year’s season. But there’s a reason, I learned yesterday at breakfast.
James Morel: Yeah. So there’s a lot of factors involved in it, but it has to do with being able to get all of the data we need for those models and then run those models. So we can’t get any date until after the season is over in terms of harvest and then we have our wing bees in February and March. And then we start looking at BPOP estimations. We look at midwinter survey data from the States and lots of different types of data that we have to sort of analyze before we can ever make some recommendations. But then what we have to do is we have to go through the federal register process. So these are all migratory birds. So we’re subjected to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. As I mentioned the other day, setting season dates and bag limits and regulations for waterfowl are completely different than any other species, completely different than deer and turkey and quail and some of these other things because we’re subject to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. So that means that we have to go through the Federal Register process. Well, with COVID that’s really been a real struggle with people that are working from home and not being able to really stay on track with schedules with federal process. And so anytime we propose seasons, we have to go through a 60 day comment period. And then you go through another six day period, or another period if there are comments that need to be addressed, that sort of thing before a final rule is ever published. Sometimes this final rules aren’t published until season has already started. And so it’s one of those things where it’s very difficult for us to have all the data and get through the federal process in time for duck season. And so that’s why we have to set seasons a year in advance based on last year’s model, last year’s production.
Ramsey Russell: And there’s enough buffer, enough data to support that?
James Morel: Absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: We’re not impaired for data.
James Morel: Well, that is my perspective. So there’s two schools of thought there: that we don’t have the data that we need and so we should be making a different type of decision. But I’m of the mind that we have a lot of good data yet and we can make an informed decision versus looking at making a decision based on our gut feeling. Now gut feelings are not something to be thrown away either. There’s a lot of experienced biologists out there that have a pretty good idea and pretty good thumb on what’s going on with waterfowl populations and an opinion can have some weight. But again we put a lot of effort into adaptive harvest management and our AHM model. I want to see how that works. I want to see how that data works, especially on years like this year where we had such low production. You know, is it going to spit us out this model where we’re going to go to restrictive season or moderate season. Is it going to say hey we still have enough ducks where we can go —
Ramsey Russell: I would bet that it does. But I don’t know.
James Morel: Yeah. We won’t know until a little bit later this year what’s going to happen once we get all that data in and analyzed and see what’s going to happen. Of course like you said, we’ve already set seasons for 22-23.
Ramsey Russell: When will the chatter set? When would when would we the public become aware of what they find up north and if going into 22-23, we’re going to be looking at that abbreviated season.
James Morel: That’s a good question. With the Covid restrictions now, and folks with Fishing and Wildlife working from home – and I’ll be honest with you, we’re going through a lot of personnel changes in Fishing and Wildlife, especially in the Central Flyway. So it’s going to be hard to say. I really don’t know when we’re going to be able to all get together, even I’ve got flyway meeting coming up here in a couple of weeks and we’re still doing all that on Microsoft Teams, or Zoom, or whatever because so many people can’t make these meetings and we really need that level of engagement. And so it’s hard for me to say exactly when the general public is going to know about that stuff. But you’ll see it, it’ll be a federal register proposal. The proposed season dates and they’ll be that 60 day comment period. So whenever that happens, you guys will be aware.
Ramsey Russell: Except I don’t read the federal register, I don’t think anybody listening does. If you do send me an email, give me the highlights. But I get what you’re saying.
James Morel: But you’ll know when it comes out and that’s when the discussions will start happening.
Oklahoma: Hunting Destination State
You know, we’ve got green timber, flooded timber hunts, we’ve got moist soil units, we’ve got field hunts, we’ve got cranes, we’ve got it all. It’s really great.
Ramsey Russell: Getting back on the state of Oklahoma. It is a destination state. Do you lose sleep over anything Oklahoma being a destination state?
James Morel: I’ll lose sleep over everything. I take ducks pretty serious, man, it’s my passion, and I love them. Yes and no. We want people to come out and see what we have. We’ve got an amazing hunting areas out here in Oklahoma. We’ve got some really unique hunting out here and we’ve got just a little bit of everything. So yesterday, I’ve got a group of friends that they go out on Lake Oologah and they hunted red breasted mergansers out of layout boats, and they’re kind of known for that and it’s amazing, it’s a really unique hunt. You know, we’ve got green timber, flooded timber hunts, we’ve got moist soil units, we’ve got field hunts, we’ve got cranes, we’ve got it all. It’s really great. Do I lose sleep over it? The hunting pressure thing is something that I’m often thinking about, certainly because —
Ramsey Russell: What do you think if I can ask you? What concerns you about that? What do you think about that?
James Morel: It can me that my constituents, the people that I work for are not going to be satisfied. We work real hard to satisfy our hunters. And that’s what concerns me most because the people are what matter to us, right? The resource matters as equally as much but with hunting pressure, the resources a little bit less of an issue for me because those birds, as you were mentioned as you get more hunting pressure, they go find sanctuaries and they stay away from the guns. And so I’m not worried about any kind of like over harvest. You hear that a lot about, we’ve got way too many nonresidents coming. We’ve got way too many hunters, we’re going to kill way too many ducks. We’ve got a handle on that, that’s not going to be a problem. The biggest issue is are we going to have satisfied hunters? Are we going to have people that are going to be able to go out and experience the hunting that we want them to experience?
Ramsey Russell: And that’s important because hunters are bankrolling the North American conservation model, and if they’re dissatisfied and they go start playing golf, they’re no longer participating in that financial endeavor.
James Morel: Right. And the reality is we hunters were a minority. We always will. We always have been and we always will be. And so we don’t need to be losing them. We need to be gaining hunters. And Oklahoma is a unique state as well as a few other states. I mean, we’ve got increased participation in both resident and nonresident. We’re not really having an issue of losing Water fowler’s here in Oklahoma. We’re gaining them here. So that’s a good thing. But at the same time you do wonder is there a threshold where the hunting — if you’re only shooting one or two birds every time you go out, it’s not worth it to them anymore. And so a lot of the aspects that I focus on with our constituents is be adaptive. I think these last three days is a good example of the need to be adaptive. We went up to the Panhandle hoping for some cranes, we knew they were up there two weeks ago, nobody had a chance to go up and scout, they weren’t there so we had to find something else. And as you get more hunting pressure and these birds start to do different things. Be adaptive, you know, get out and scout, get out and look and see what those birds are doing. You can still get after them.
Ramsey Russell: Hunt differently.
James Morel: Hunt differently, yeah. Go find different species. We were hunting this morning. About a week ago, I flew this mid-winter survey out here and there were 20,000 mallards on this on this river where we’re at.
Ramsey Russell: It wasn’t this morning.
James Morel: Certainly it wasn’t this morning. And I think a lot of it had to do with everything iced up a week ago. They were out here loafing and hanging out on these rivers. But the pilot biologist deny that. He’s been flying this for I think 12 – 13 years. And he said, I’ve never seen anything like it. Never seen this many birds. In fact, as we were flying up to this area, he said, James, this might be something you need to cut out of your survey. We never see any ducks here and we end up seeing 20,000 mallards. You know, so things change. Mallards have wings. Ducks have wings. They move around, they do whatever they have to do to stay away from the guns, find good habitat. So do we, we need to follow them. We have to figure out what they’re doing and we can follow them. My waterfowl technician Paxton Smith, he is mad at them ducks, man. And he gets after them like crazy. And he’s really, really good at being adaptive. I don’t know what his other seasons have been like, but I’d say he’s had one of his best seasons he ever had. I mean he’s coming back with limits of ducks every weekend and every day he takes off and he’s very adaptive and he’s going all over the state finding these ducks.
Ramsey Russell: Go where they are.
James Morel: So it’s possible, it’s possible. But is it possible for a nonresident that doesn’t know the area, that doesn’t know what the ducks are doing. Can they come up here and get into a good duck hunt? Yeah, but it’s a little tougher.
A Measure of Satisfaction with Waterfowl Hunting
I’d measure that as a successful hunt and I’m a satisfied hunter.
Ramsey Russell: You were telling me yesterday at lunch, too, that kind of the missive of waterfowl management in the United States is maximum sustained yield.
James Morel: Well that’s kind of the model that we base off right now. So we want to try to provide hunters the highest number of birds that they can shoot for the longest period.
Ramsey Russell: Produce the greatest population, the greatest abundance so that hunters could potentially have the greatest opportunity.
James Morel: And that stems from a lot of hunter based surveys that have been done over the last 30-40-50 years. That’s really what hunters were really wanting, right? They’re wanting maximum opportunity. As many ducks and geese as they can possibly kill. Things are changing a little bit now with hunting pressure. And folks are starting to think about wanting to shoot three birds or four birds instead of just going out and having limits.
Ramsey Russell: It’s funny you say that because maybe it’s just a lot of us duck hunters can’t be happy. Maybe we’re just grumpy old guys, if we ain’t out there just the ducks blackening the sky every single morning. It’s possible. I could be guilty of that.
James Morel: I’ll counter that duck hunters are just passionate about what they do.
Ramsey Russell: We are. But I can remember, gosh, a long time ago James, talking to a state of Mississippi biologist, the waterfowl biology at the time. And he was talking about the boat ramp surveys were dismal that everybody would seem to be the latest 15-20 years ago. And they were extremely unhappy to which I said, lower the bag limit. He said, what do you mean? I said lower the bag limit, make it four. He says, that’s bizarre, why would you do that? I go, well, because if they’re coming out with three or four or coming out with four ducks, they got their limit. You know they’ve achieved the goal.
James Morel: Yeah. And you know that’s one aspect of hunters. There are there are a group of hunters out that are chasing for limits. And we talked about the five stages of hunting and we won’t get into that here. But there’s a lot of different reasons why people go out and hunt. And there seems to be a larger subset of hunters that place a little bit more importance on getting that limit. And I think a lot of it has to do with social media, being able to snap that picture.
Ramsey Russell: Maybe it is because of the American mindset.
James Morel: Yeah it might be.
Ramsey Russell: I mean we’re capitalists were achievers. We’re cultivated since birth to get the touchdown.
James Morel: Yeah. Right.
Ramsey Russell: And if I go to a movie and I’ll pay you 20 bucks to go see a two hour feature and the movie stop an hour and a half into it. I’m disappointed. I didn’t get my money’s worth. So it could be a little bit of cultural.
James Morel: Absolutely and it’s always a challenge as a waterfowl manager. Any waterfowl biologist will tell you, it’s a challenge because that’s one aspect of hunters. So that’s just one way to measure satisfaction. So to me if I get out by myself with my dog and I shoot a mallard and he goes and retrieves, and that’s all that happens that day, I’m a happy boy. I’d measure that as a successful hunt and I’m a satisfied hunter. Not all people feel that way and you go through different — we know now that hunters kind of go through different stages. And I know you and I both probably when we were kids and we were just little ones 8-9-10 years old getting into it, all we wanted to do was kill. And you get out of that a little bit and you start enjoying the experience, and today we’re sitting out here on the river, and not much was happening, and I was enjoying just messing around, and the cardinals, and I was calling to them and they were coming. I had one land on my shoulder, and watching the sun come up on the other side of the bank. It was just a beautiful morning and I just enjoyed the heck out of myself today.
Ramsey Russell: You weren’t at the office.
James Morel: Yeah, and I wasn’t at the office. And I didn’t pull the trigger, I didn’t even pick up my gun, you know? And so to me was it a satisfying duck hunt? Yeah, well not so much. Was it a satisfying hunt? Yeah, it was. And so it’s a challenge as waterfowl managers and waterfowl biologist that we want to include all of those perspectives. We understand that want to go out there and get that six ducks or get out there and get that one Pintail. You didn’t get your pintail this year I’m going to go find that pintail. We get it. I get it man. That’s fun stuff to do. But we also have other hunters that aren’t bent that way.
Ramsey Russell: It’s fun to shoot bird. It’s fun. I like the birds, I like the wildlife, I like the scenery, the whole aura of duck hunting. But I do like shoot ducks. It’s fun. It’s fun. And the reason I kind of went down this rabbit trail was I have been in the atlantics flyway with the limit of two mallards and I’d rather shoot 4-5-6-7 whatever. But you know as I’ve hunted there and come out with two mallards plus a black duck or a couple of teals whatever two mallards, it seems plenty. I get in, I shoot my limit. I’m done. I’m back eating breakfast or whatever like that. And it kind of seems plenty and it’s satisfying that I got “the limit” and I barred that up. I kind of marry that up to a conversation I had with Brian Huber out in California about hunting speckle bellies back in the day when the limit was two. Boom-boom. I get my speckle bellies versus now the limits ten because of the populations and now they’re becoming extremely difficult to hunt at a function of hunting pressure because people aren’t content to shoot three or four, and then beat it back in the truck with more burden they had under two bird limit. They want their ten, we’re motivated toward that limit. That’s our share. And in doing so it’s been a consequence of hunting pressure, which we’ve already talked about. It’s kind of an issue. Might that be away? I mean, being discussed at the biological level of ways to mitigate hunting pressure.
James Morel: Yeah, we don’t have any real good solutions. The ideal thing is you just provide as much habitat to the public as possible. And that’s what we do. And as hunting pressure gets more and more, they start to focus on areas that aren’t pressured, and so they move over to those areas, and those get pressured. And so it’s just this dynamic that you’re always kind of just chasing the tail of. And there’s no real good solutions when you have a lot of duck hunters that want to go out and shoot ducks in a particular state. South Dakota, they have a limit on how many nonresident can come in. And so that’s one way.
Ramsey Russell: Arkansas does too.
Ways of Gaining More Waterfowl Hunters
Because we’re at this point, I think in America we need more hunters, we need we need more money, and we need more political relevance as hunters to go into conservation, to go into habitat, to go into land acquisition, to go into salary, and staff, and all this good stuff that hunters are footing the bill for.
James Morel: Yeah, Arkansas does too. And so that’s one way to sort of mitigate some of that or at least have some level of control over hunting pressure. But you’re talking about a spatial area of an entire state. So how do you mitigate pressure on localized areas? Well, what you have to do is you have to start thinking about blind drawings or first come first served with cap limits and what you end up doing is you trade one problem for another. So you have a whole bunch of pressure. Well, now what you’ve done is you’ve limited all the people that could potentially use it. So you get real die hard folks out there. And some grandpa and grandson that wanted to go out and shoot a few ducks. Now they got to get up at 1:00 a.m. to go get in line to beat everybody else. Well, most of those guys aren’t willing to do it, only the diehards are. So you trade one problem for another problem. And I’m not sure which one is the best.
Ramsey Russell: First let me say this, thank you for what you do, I thank all your wildlife managers for what you do because I’m glad I’m not in your boots. Because we’re at this point, I think in America we need more hunters, we need we need more money, and we need more political relevance as hunters to go into conservation, to go into habitat, to go into land acquisition, to go into salary, and staff, and all this good stuff that hunters are footing the bill for. But at the same time everybody I’m talking to biologists and regular guys who say we got too much hunting pressure, what the heck are we going to do? It’s a real big balancing act that I’m glad people like yourself are tackling. You mentioned like draw spaces, and to that point, my son in high school and several of his buddies were applying for special draws on certain WMAs in state of Mississippi, and that’s how they’ve treated a lot of WMAs in Mississippi. It’s not enough for everybody from Mississippi, let alone Georgia, Alabama, and parts around the world to show up and hunt WMAs, it’s just not enough habitats. They started going to a draw system and I kept up with it. And there were times that if Forrest and two or three of his buddies all kind of put it together if one got drawn, you can bring two. Well, for the season total while they were in high school, they would run between one and three duck hunts in aggregate together. And the opportunity to go duck hunting one to three times is not going to make a duck hunter, no matter how good the hunting is. So that’s a real problem. I know there’s no answers.
James Morel: Well there’s no answers. And what I hope is and I think a lot of us hope is that it’ll kind of help it a little self-regulate. And hopefully people will want to start to understand that we need to get kind of spread out and we need to use different areas. We get so kind of — you have a good hunt right somewhere. Maybe you have two or three good hunts over a year or two in a certain area. It’s always in your mind, I want to go back there and hunt, that’s my spot, that’s my spot. That’s where I need to go hunt because there’s always birds there and I always shoot limits there. And we need to kind of get away from that perspective and say, okay, let’s go find some other birds, let’s go hunt some different populations of birds. Let’s go, let’s go crane hunting, let’s go goose hunting, let’s go do this, let’s get some diversity. So we all get some shooting in and you hope that’ll kind of help self-regulate. I mean we talked a little bit about outfield license, some other stuff in the past and I’m really in the mind that, I’m really not someone that I want to put more regulation in into any hunters or outfitters or anything like that. But as you get more and more pressure and more and more participation, we’ll have to start thinking about those options and some of that stuff. How do we do that? And you’re right, there is no good answer right now, there is no good answer. We’ve got the ducks, we’ve got the properties, but some of these famous properties are getting hit more and more and more. I keep referring back to social media, because it’s still a pretty infant thing right in the last 10 years or so it’s a whole lot easier to go find where ducks are now because some guy post shot my limit on so and so lake this morning, and boom all of a sudden people that didn’t have ducks, that’s where they go. And so I think that, that’s having a lot of contribution toward pressure in localized areas.
Ramsey Russell: How will you spend the rest of your season? I know you’re off this week. What’s your plan?
James Morel: Well, I think I’m going to go back to the city, I got a little family business to deal with and then I’m going to try to head down to the southwest.
Ramsey Russell: Go get those cranes.
James Morel: Yeah you know me, man, I found some cranes out there and I think I’m going to go try to get after them.
Ramsey Russell: Any important shot for the listener regards Oklahoma waterfowl hunting because you really do have a beautiful, beautiful state. And besides the outfitters and there’s plenty of them. Y’all do have some public land hunting opportunities. It’s welcoming. It’s a great state. It’s the most conservative state in America I learned from the governor.
James Morel: We are Red State for sure. You know, get out here and do some scouting. Pick what you want to do. I mean, we’ve got green timber hunts, we’ve got field hunts. We’ve got moist soil hunts. I mean, we’ve got it all over the state. Like I said, we are a private land state, but we’ve got management areas in every corner and every nook and cranny of the state and you just got to kind of get out there and do a little scouting. I tell people all the time, the scout is the hunt. The morning of the hunt you’re just shooting birds, you came to shoot, right? The hunt is all the scouting. You got to do that. So get out here, do some scouting, see what you like. Like you said, we have a beautiful state rivers, man, our Red River, Arkansas River, probably some of the most underutilized areas in Oklahoma. Birds really like them, especially in late season right now. So if you’re coming out here in the next month or so, get out here check out them rivers. There’s a lot of ducks on them right now. But yeah, come on out.
Ramsey Russell: I appreciate you, James.
James Morel: Ramsey, I appreciate being on the podcast and appreciate industry folks like you that have a real interesting conservation. You’ve got skin in the game and you’re not just out here trying to sell me a hunt, you guys are interested in conservation and what we’re doing as a state agency and as a flyway and I appreciate the opportunity.
Ramsey Russell: And folks, we appreciate y’all for listening. Be sure to subscribe, share your favorite episode with your buddies, leave us a mark on whatever app you’re listening to this podcast on and leave us a comment of course @ramseyrussellgetducks. Hit me up in inbox if you’ve got any subject matters or questions or anything like that you need to need to talk about. Thank you all for listening. I’m in Oklahoma, but fixing to head home. See you next time.